Tales of the Pandemic

Life inside a Vietnamese government quarantine

British citizen Gavin Wheeldon has been held in a Vietnamese government quarantine near Hanoi since March 14. Here he provides an insight on what day-to-day life is like under complete lockdown

Gavin Wheeldon
March 16, 2020
Life inside a Vietnamese government quarantine
Gavin Wheeldon inside the government quarantine in Hanoi.

Gavin Wheeldon is a British citizen who has been held in a Vietnamese government-run quarantine in Son Tay since March 14 after landing in Hanoi on a direct flight from London, England. While Southeast Asia Globe takes the utmost care to publish accurate information, by the very nature of these first-hand accounts we are unable to independently verify the accuracy of the details contained within them.

5am – I land at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport with hopes of a new life in my favourite country. I finally made it. As we leave the plane, we’re greeted with barriers and must complete health declarations. People are being swabbed and staff are wearing protective clothing. It’s all very real now. It’s no longer a headline.

Each of us must wait to be swabbed and give up our passports. Suddenly I’m grateful I filled in the online declaration and skipped the queue. I’m met with more forms, more confusion. Finally they take swab samples from my throat and nose and I’m gestured to sit in a specific area.

I look back at the slow moving queue. Westerners, Vietnamese, each of them waiting. As the hours pass, unrest grows and none of us are given information. A nearby elderly holiday group complains but it becomes increasingly evident that it’s not just us who are confused – the staff aren’t sure what to do with us. I realise that somewhere, someone is having a meeting about where to send us.

About 4-5 hours in, we’re suddenly told we have two choices. Take our passports and buy another flight out or go into 14 day quarantine and enter Vietnam. Everything will be free unless we test positive, then foreigners will need to pay any hospital bills. Vietnamese will be treated for free. 

As people complain and ask repetitive questions, I feel sorry for the translator. She’s here to help us. Suddenly it all becomes very human, we’re guests in a country doing their best to protect themselves and are extending us that courtesy. Such is the good nature of Vietnam.

The Vietnamese all enter the quarantine zone and the rest of us make our choices. Whichever choice we take, there’s no turning back. We’re down to four westerners, total strangers with a common goal to get through this. We don’t know what awaits us or where we’re going, only rumours of being taken to far away places.

We’re taken to what looks like a cargo entrance and board coaches. Our passports go into a bright yellow biohazard bag and the realisation hits me: we’re dangerous material. As we’re driven out of the airport, we speculate what the conditions might be. Will we be fed enough? Will we be in close proximity with the sick? The scenery changes from busy streets to highways to countryside until we reach a military base. 

The airport was chaotic, but quarantine is highly organised. It’s clear that while the rest of the world waited, Vietnam has been preparing

They spray the coach with disinfectant as we enter and take us to a huge courtyard where our luggage is sprayed. I look around and there are two huge dormitories and fencing. Everyone wears protective clothing. One by one we register and are instructed to our rooms. It becomes immediately apparent that they’ve kept us Europeans away from the others and are separating men and women. Anyone vulnerable or with children go into a separate room. The airport was chaotic, but quarantine is highly organised. It’s clear that while the rest of the world waited, Vietnam has been preparing. 

As I walk to my room, I look around at the scenery. I see fencing, training grounds and fields in the distance with farmers at work. Conditions are far better than I expected. The four Westerners share a room, with 10 military bunk-beds. We talk, look around, and get some well needed sleep. The next morning, an argument arises between us about talking while people are sleeping. We settle it then and there, but it’s clear we need to be mindful of one another. Banh Mi arrives for breakfast and satisfies every craving – I’ve missed the flavour of real Banh Mi. 

Later, a soldier returns having purchased a SIM card for me. I wanted to tip him for helping me since I got here but he refuses, only taking money for the SIM. Our translator arrives shortly and asks us about our time here. She revealed that she wasn’t from an embassy, she volunteered to be here. She took the risk to help us. We find out unofficially, the results came in overnight and that we all tested negative except an elderly gentleman in business class. I’m filled with relief but also anxiety. Did I stand near him at some point? Did I touch something he might have touched? All I know is he didn’t come with us after the airport. We reach out to loved ones and reassure them but tell them we’ll be here for the full 14 days.

Outside, everything is peaceful. The location is quiet, the soldiers work tirelessly to sterilise the rooms daily, log our temperature and clear out our bins. They live here to help their country and despite what they might have heard, they’re friendly and caring. So far, this feels more like a holiday camp than a quarantine. In our room, we share snacks, fruit, and start getting deliveries from loved ones.

As I walk outside, staying behind our designated areas, a Vietnamese man says hello. He asks me a few questions, then asks how many people are in the room. I tell them four, he tells me he lives with 16. Suddenly my friend warns me that they might misinterpret the separation as privilege. It dawns on me that as the crowds get bigger, unrest will become another factor.

We learn that there will soon be 700 people, and over the next 12 hours a constant stream of coaches arrives through the night. By the morning, we have new neighbours and the opposing building is completely full. You can hear the size of the crowd from here. Fear sets in – will we get infected from others? So far, it’s been peaceful, but our translator tells us that we’re here to be quarantined away from Vietnam – not to be safe from each other. I take a few photos and walk around. Some of the luggage remains outside for some reason, amongst it, a pram. A sight that’s deeply chilling.

The situation remains calm here, but we fear that may change. Perhaps tension amongst strangers when crowds get larger. Fear of being infected from others, and increased boundary-setting. It’s all unknown, but we’re in it together. It’s clear that Vietnam is working hard to keep people safe.

This story is part of the Globe’s collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called Tales of the Pandemic. Published each Monday and covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history, all of these Covid-19 personal essays can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words, preferably with images, to a.mccready@globemediaasia.com with the subject “Covid-19 personal essay”.

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